February 8, 2011

One of my favourite authors, John Birmingham, of He Died With a Felafel in His Hand fame, just recently asked a question on his facebook and twitter profiles: how does an arranged marriage differ from internet dating? He actually means the Western European version of internet dating not matrimonial websites, as used by Indians around the world.

Although a “Westerner” myself, after having followed my friend Nirzari’s family through their journey of arranged-cum-love-marriage, I feel a little qualified to answer that question. I would prefer a bit of input from those people who have experienced it themselves and are in a current arranged marriage. So, those of you reading this post, please feel free to jump in and reply as you see fit.

The difference between an arranged marriage and internet dating to me is huge. In an arranged marriage of the traditional kind, your relatives seek out a family that is compatible with you and with them. They find a person from a similar background, with similar values, whose personality and career aspirations are in line with yours. A middle class Indian family is no longer concerned with a dowry. On the contrary, they look at the potential candidate’s profession, their career prospects and their levels of intelligence compared to their own progeny. Families start looking while the single young men and women are beginning university, while their personalities are still adaptable. The aim is to marry them off in their twenties while the girl is still able to adapt to her husband’s family, with whom she may have to live if they are resident in India. However, these days, most middle class Indians try to study overseas and their families often try to matchmake them while they are living in different continents. How does this work if you want to get to know each other sufficiently to let your parents go ahead and negotiate on your behalf? Two words: instant messaging.

Yes, the internet has changed the face of arranged marriages for Indians. The whole family jumps into the fray. They all have instant messaging accounts, they all email each other and they all Skype each other. When it comes to meeting the prospective candidate, they all have a go at talking to the chosen one. They all develop separate relationships with the potential suitor/bride, just to see whether this is really the kind of the person they want in the family. And the two people whose fate is in the balance also talk to each other online. They ask each other questions that in the West are considered quite heavy and perhaps even a no-no when you’re first getting to know each other, for example: where do you want to raise children? What God do you worship? How serious are you about your faith? Do you live with your parents?

And in response to the post in John’s blog asking why someone has not come up with a webwizard to take the guesswork out of matchmaking for arranged marriages: they have. It’s called a matrimonial website. There is not just one matrimonial site. There are hundreds. Some are more popular than others. Among Indians, the most popular ones are Shaadiconnections.com and BharatMatrimony.com – Shaadiconnections.com boasts ads in the London Tube (a more accurate marker of success than any other I have seen – before the GFC the ads on the Tube were all for financial advisors and merchant banks). They now have country specific sites with millions of paying subscribers.

So how different are these matrimonial sites to dating sites? Let’s compare:

Matrimonial Sites

  • Have profiles set up by that person or their relatives.
  • The profiles include Vedic horoscope matching.
  • Profiles include caste, sub-caste, social class, income.
  • Profiles describe skin tone, hair colour, height,ethnic group.
  • Profiles detail profession, education, languages spoken.
  • Self-description explains personality, values, residency status.

Dating Sites

  • Have profiles setup by one person who wants to find someone else.
  • Profiles have only the age of the subscribers.
  • No income mentioned.
  • Include height, build, ethnic origin.
  • Sometimes the occupation is mentioned. Not often.
  • Self-description explains what that person likes to do and what they want to find.

Where do the similarities end? When it comes to choice. Different fields in the database yield different results. Horoscopes are matched by algorithms not astrologers, using ancient Vedic charts. The thing is, the matrimonial site membership allows the person to pick out someone who seems attractive to them, but they still have to go through the family filter before they can even date this person. The thing is, these young people are not being forced into matrimonial sites nor into the process of family approval. They want their family’s input. They don’t want to make the most long lasting decision of their lives alone.

This is where they differ from internet dating sites. If you are going on a date with that hot girl you met on RSVP you are not going to ask your relatives to talk to her just to make sure she’s not an axe murderer, a junkie or just has personalty problems. You are taking the risk without asking for anyone’s advice. Plus, you’re not in it for keeps. You’re just trying another way of meeting someone initially for fun. You are not choosing a lifetime partner. Indians who use matrimonial sites are not playing around, which is why their search widgets say Groom looking for Bride or Bride looking for Groom. No mucking around there. As for the issue of choice, they make the first choice: do they like the look of this person or not?